Wednesday, 30 November 2011

C is for Craft

Mozart was a genius. His talent flowed without apparent effort. But Mozart had to learn his craft before he started composing. Same with writing, but the road to creative writing craft is less clear cut than learning scales and arpeggios.

Now, you don't have to have creative writing tuition or read shedloads of How To books to learn craft, and there are plenty of people out there who have successful writing careers without a single bit of formal teaching. What those people do is what writers have done over the past hundreds of years: read.

Most writers (all writers?) are fervent readers. Read, read, read and unconsciously you pick up a lot of craft techniques. There are other ways of learning craft techniques. Most writers (all writers?) are listeners and eavesdroppers. Most writers (all writers?) are curious about people and the world around them. Most writers (all writers?) are communicators - that's why so many have early careers in professions like acting, teaching, journalism.

For some writers, reading, listening, communicating etc is enough. For others, formally learning craft - whether from a book or a teacher - is a short cut. By craft I mean techniques such as:

Chapter ends and pacing, to control the reader experience.
Ways to heighten tension eg sentence/chapter length, action
Using action to enliven essentially passive description
Dialogue as a tool to convey character and characterisation
Language to add interest and colour to prose
Editing skills
Reading aloud to learn about rhythm and cadence
Knowing when to dramatise and when to summarise

Find yourself a teacher who can and will teach craft (not all creative writing teachers can or do). Failing that, read some books. My favourite book on craft technique is Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. Flair, talent, the stuff that Mozart was made of is something else. You get born with that. But we can all learn craft and, while we may not all be Mozarts (I'm certainly not) we can all be damn fine writers.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

B is for Baggage

We've all got it, even if we think we don't.  Baggage is the mind set we carry around with us, also known as hang-ups.  Sometimes it's good - an innate confidence for example that makes us persist in the face of rejection.  Sometimes it's not as beneficial - an innate confidence that makes us reject any feedback from others.  

I think writers benefit from acknowledging their baggage and learning when it's useful and when it's detrimental and how to maximise the former and minimise the latter.  

My baggage:  
I tend to stick with what I know and have to push myself out of my comfort zone.  When I'm writing I have to stop myself from trotting out the same situations/locations.  Now I often leave out those details on the first draft so I can spend some time thinking up different set ups from my first reactions.  When I'm teaching I often get the students to come up with words, or situations rather than coming with them pre-supplied.  I'm always surprised at the range of what they suggest.  

I was brought up with the idea that pushing yourself forward was bad.  I don't like self-promotion, either doing it myself or hearing it from others.  I vaguely hope that by being as good as you can be, somehow the magic universe will notice you.  Don't get me wrong, I'm still a believer in self deprecation and not shoving oneself to the front, but I've also learned that the magic universe doesn't automatically notice you.  You HAVE to get your work (and often, yourself) out there.  If this doesn't come naturally to you, you need to find ways to get round it.  I like chatting, so Twitter suits me, especially as overt self-promotion will lose followers.  I don't like parties and schmoozing so I avoid those situations even though networking is good for careers.

Confidence, lack of.  And the flip side of this is being overly impressed (and then depressed) by other people's achievements.  Letting what other people achieve affect you is daft, but it's an easy trap to fall into.  When I was doing my MA there was one person who became obsessed by other students' marks.  It visibly corroded her belief in herself and her writing as she grumbled and complained about X getting a higher mark for their writing than she had done.  I could suffer from this...instead I mentally stick my fingers in my ears and sing La La La when someone has just got some mega deal or sold shedloads in Tesco.  It's irrational - just because X has succeeded doesn't mean I won't, so there's no reason to skulk back to my laptop thinking 'what's the point in carrying on?'  

This post could go on and on and on, but I'd better stop for fear of boring you - which of course is yet another bit of my baggage...

Monday, 28 November 2011

A is for Action

Action is everything for a writer, both in terms of their writing and in what they do.  Action in writing is simply the stuff that happens - it's not necessarily all singing, all exploding, car chases, fights and the like, it can be interior stuff such as realisations or changes in attitude, as well as external actions like going shopping or meeting a friend.  

The sort of action you find in a novel determines the type of novel it is.  Something by Anita Brookner, for example, has very different actions compared to a novel by Dan Brown, but both are full of actions.  

But action in itself doesn't make for interesting reading.  It has to be action with meaning, action that carries change with it.  When you're starting out writing it's often easy to forget this aspect of action.  Characters may be doing lots of things, but they can be staying in the same place, whether it's on a action filled journey that is just one event after another, never moving the story forwards, or a character hanging about thinking things over but never moving on.  

I think it's also one of the reasons people get stuck at about 30,000 words.  The initial burst of energy gets them quite a long way along, but then the action begins to dry up.  Characters and the writing get stuck.  The solution is to move the action along through change.  Raymond Chandler is supposed to have suggested having a dame enter holding a smoking gun, Terry Pratchett suggests a naked woman bursting in brandishing a flaming sword.  Not necessarily advice to be taken literally (especially if you're writing a contemporary rom com) but the point is to change the situation dramatically.

Action is also important in a writer's life.  If you don't DO stuff, then nothing will happen.  Doing means writing, then putting the writing out there (if being read by others is what you want).  Even if you're famous you've got to make some effort  (a celebrity once came to one of my novel writing classes, complete with an agent and a publisher, but was stuck at doing the writing - several years later, there's still no sign of a novel).  

Do it, without fretting too much about the end result.  Do it, get it done, and then fret - but do it first.  As Goethe said, 'Action has magic and power in it.'

Friday, 25 November 2011

Really, Really Wanting It

I find it worrying how many times you hear on reality talent programmes how the contestants really want it, it being whatever the prize is. They really, really want it. Really, really, really want it. You see this on X Factor and America's Next Top Model and - oh, anything that involves a judge deciding who to pick and who to drop. Sometimes the judge even says approvingly, 'A really wants it'.

I must admit my reaction is 'So what?' Sure, if A really wants to win, they'll perhaps work harder, spend more time on whatever it is they're trying to achieve, and that's good, but just wanting it? Is that supposed to out-weigh talent, and ability and skill?

I worry that 'wanting it' leads to a feeling of entitlement. 'This is what I want (and I really, really want it), therefore I should have it.' If you want to be a singer or a model then you're not going to get far without the support of people already working in the industry. Really wanting it, in real life, doesn't get you far unless you also have talent, ability, skill, persistence etc.

Until recently, that's been true for writing. You write a novel and yes, you've always been able to self-publish, but before e-publishing finances dictated small print runs and limited access to distribution networks. Now, e-publishing has taken those barriers away, and for good measure, Amazon and the rest will deal with all your invoicing and payments. All you have to do is the formatting, marketing and spending the money received.

I think e-publishing is great. I think it's creating opportunities for writers (although there are also some worrying signs that it could be financially disastrous long term).

But I do worry that feelings of entitlement might lead writers rushing in to self-publish before their books are ready on the grounds that they want publication now. Just because you feel ready, just because you want it really really badly, doesn't mean you are in fact ready for publication.

When I started writing fiction I had no idea of the amount of work that went into bringing a short story, let alone a novel, up to scratch. And I'd spent the previous ten years writing and editing non-fiction for my living. I was genuinely surprised that my short stories didn't automatically get short listed for every competition they went up for. Gradually I learned...

But I was still convinced that the first version of Adultery for Beginners was amazing, and was equally amazed that no one wanted it. No one even asked to read more. After a long period of sulking, I re-wrote and ended up cutting 90%. Yup, that's how good that first version was.

I've heard that feeling repeated by other authors. They look at their first writing (often because they're thinking of e-publishing earlier works which are now out of print) which at the time they thought was brilliant and shudder.

Self-publishing blogs you can read comments like: I'm going to e-publish when I'm finished because I don't want to go through the hassle of submitting, or I don't like people commenting on my work, or I can't be bothered with rewriting it. And the response is sometimes things like: good for you, and go for it, and conventional publishing is dead. Luckily there are also people who comment saying, are you sure it's ready? Because a writer may really, really want it, and think their book is ready, but it doesn't necessarily mean that it is.

One of the great things about e-publishing is how easy it is to tell friends about a great book you read. It's also very easy to tell someone about a bad one. You and your book may be ready, but is the readership ready for your book? The question isn't about how much you really really want it. It's about how much the readership really, really want it.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Pacing In A Novel

Learning how to pace your writing is an important skill, but the basics are simple: Sometimes go faster, and sometimes go slowly.

If you go fast, fast, fast, fast you begin to lose impact. It's like someone shouting all the time; after a while you switch off. If you go slow, slow, slow, slow, your readers will begin to drift off.
You need to go forwards in a mixture of fast and slow scenes, though not in such an obvious pattern as fast, slow, fast, slow, fast, slow which will become predictable. And as you get towards the end, the chances are that you'll have more fast scenes than slow ones.

So, what makes a scene fast? Usually lots of action and dialogue, and exciting things happening. A slow scene will more likely include a lot of internal thought and reflection on what's just happened.

If you're unsure, try listing your scenes on index cards. Then lay them out on the floor or a big table along an imaginary central line. Scenes above the line are fast (and the further above the line, the faster they are), scenes below the line are slow (and the further below the line, the slower they are). Ideally, your index cards should zig zag across the floor or table in a varied and unpredictable way.

This is an easy way to check your pace and see if there are any places where nothing much happens for a while (ie several cards together below the line) or if there are clumps of action and excitement (ie several cards together above the line). You can do it for each scene too, and it should show a similarly varied pattern.

And finally, you can check that all your best bits - the ones that you rate highest up the excitement scale - are spread out throughout the novel.

Everything needs to have light and shade and a change of pace to them. Think of a film like Die Hard. Yes, there are bangs and explosions and exciting stuff happening. But there are also sections where Bruce chats to the policeman in a reflective way, the calm before the next storm. Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow or quick, quick, slow, quick, slow, quick - it doesn't matter what the order is so long as it is there.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Using An Egg Timer For Writing

When my children were small, every writing minute counted and I was quite ruthless about getting on with it when I had the opportunity. Now my time is less regimented by the school run, and I have a tendency to let the minutes and hours drift away.

It's been a couple of weeks now since I brushed the dust off my Swiss Army Egg Timer (not nearly as iconic as their penknife) and began to use it regularly. First and foremost, I use it to limit my on-line time. I can't say I've been particularly disciplined - I have a habit of setting it for 15 minutes, then when the time runs out, setting it for another 15 minutes - but the theory is sound, and I'm more aware about how much time I can spend on-line.

As well as using it to limit on-line time, and time spent on domestic chores, I've been using the egg timer for writing. I've been having concentrated bursts of just writing anything down connected with the book, such as ten minutes on what the main character is wearing right now or what her bedroom looks like. I may never use the information, but writing it down is triggering other ideas and thoughts, and I'm sure it will add to the depth of my descriptions. And hey, it's only ten minutes.

I've also been using the timer for my main writing. I find I have random pockets of time, perhaps half an hour before I have to go out. Before my egg timer I would faff around, perhaps doing something domestic or grabbing a cup of tea, or randomly looking at stuff on line. With my egg timer I now sit down and write, knowing that I'm against the clock. It's surprising how much you can get done in half an hour, and how those half hours add up.

It's the great cliche - I'd write a novel if I only had the time. Well, most of us do have the time if we limit all the other stuff. And I'm find my trusty Swiss Army Egg Timer a useful tool to help me do just that.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Workshoppers and Readers - Why You Need Both

I am a BIG fan of workshopping - giving and getting feedback is the quickest way to develop as a writer, in my opinion. But it shouldn't be used as the only method of working on a novel.

The problem is that workshops, by their nature, can only look at small pieces at a time - a chapter or maybe two would be the maximum. You can (and should) edit each section thoroughly but be careful of losing sight of the bigger picture. The question 'Does the story work?' can only be answered by looking at the novel as a whole, not in little sections.

So, you need to find some people who will be readers. It's a good idea if they can be different to your workshoppers so they can come to the story fresh. It's good if they're writers too, but they don't have to be, so long as they read your genre. That's essential. Ask them about the story, ask them about how the characters are coming across, ask them about pace. Don't ask them to do a line edit - leave that for your workshop group.

I know several people who have spent years workshopping their novels, when IMO they'd be better off sending it out to readers. I understand why people do this - no one wants to ask a friend (let alone a book doctor) to commit several hours of their time to reading your novel until it's as perfect as you can possibly make it - but at some point it has to be done.

The perfect pattern would be: workshop until the first draft is done. Then send it out to readers, to check the story as whole works. Then back to workshopping to refine the text. Repeat as required.

Think of your editing as beautiful embroidery on a dress. There's little point in doing the finest work if the fabric of the dress is poor, or the style is wrong. Getting that right is what a reader will help you to do, and the workshop will help with the embroidery.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Feedback is Personal And Shouldn't Be Taken Personally

We were doing some workshopping last Friday in class, and a discussion sprang up about a specific area in a piece of writing. What struck me was how personal to the feedback-giver some of the comments were - by which I mean, their comments on a piece of fiction were coloured by someone they knew personally in real life.

Other people had had a different experience, so their comments were different and so the discussion merrily rolled along. Of course everybody was right, even though their feedback was in conflict, because it was their personal take.

So, what is the poor writer to do? How are they supposed to react? Person X says one thing, Person Y says another, Person Z has a third take. There are several choices:

1. Ignore everyone because they're all saying different things. Fair enough, but it's not going to move you forwards.

2. Listen to everyone until your head aches through trying to reconcile all those different opinions. Not advised, you'll probably lose confidence in your own judgement, and even in your ability to write.

3. Decide whose opinion you most trust and go with what they say. Understandable, especially if you've found them to provide good feedback in the past. The drawback here is that this time they may be really commenting on how they find the person/situation in real life rather than your writing.

4. Listen to what the majority are saying and use that as your guideline. A good approach, if you can disentangle what the majority are saying.

5. Can you work out if there was a specific word that is triggering this feedback? This may sound strange, but I've done enough workshops to know that a single word can send readers into all sorts of directions that the writer never intended. For example, put a man in a vest* and as far as I'm concerned he's at least over 70. I will find it hard to shake that image off, however much dashing about the character might do.

6. Decide they're all idiots. You may be right! On the other hand, you may not be.

7. Did you have a particular reaction in mind when you wrote those lines? If so, are you getting those reactions? In other words, is your writing effective? Is it doing what you want it to do? If not, how can you change it to make it get the reactions you want?

Your reaction will depend on how you feel about your writing. That bit is personal to you. But you should always remember that feedback is coloured by the experiences, both in life and of writing, of the person giving the feedback. It is personal to them.

Feedback in my experience rarely says anything about you personally. I've only once come across someone saying something personal about the writing. It was on my MA, and someone wrote all over a piece of my work that I obviously had huge issues with my parents to deal with. Er, no - but I'm pretty sure the feedback giver had.

Sometimes, feedback says more about the giver than it does about either the writing or the writer. It's personal to them. Don't take it personally.

*apologies to American readers who think a vest is what we call a waistcoat. I think you'd call our vest a singlet. Bruce Willis wears one in Die Hard, so perhaps it's not just for the over 70s in the US.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Why Chapters Can Be Like Malteasers

A book has two potential actions attached to it: being read, and being written. Before we start writing we are readers (I hope - if you're trying to write a novel and you don't read, quick, quick, stop reading this blog and pick up the nearest novel in your genre).

So, our initial experience of books is as a reader, and as a reader we find chapters useful because they divide the text - which may well be over 100,000 words - into useful chunks. We need the text to be in useful chunks because it's rare one has the opportunity to read a book from cover to cover in one sitting. More usually we're reading until it's lights out time, or our bus stop approaches, or our name is called in the waiting room. Chunks make it easier to leave the text and start doing whatever it is we need to do next.

Chunks of text have other benefits for the reader. I heard on the radio recently a discussion about an author's books - I think it was Peter James, but I'm not sure - and one man was saying how much he enjoyed the books because the chapters were so short. It gave him a sense of achievement that he was reading so many chapters. The other man commented that when he knew the chapters were short he felt more like reading them, because he wouldn't get trapped. The first man agreed, but added that he often read more than he'd planned because of exactly that reason - because there was a let out clause, he would try the next chapter, get hooked, read on, try the next chapter, get hooked, read on etc.

Obviously to him, chapters were like Malteasers to me - only 16 calories each, so an allowable treat. Yeah, right - and whoever ate just ONE Malteaser? I can get through a whole packet in no time at all.

When we're writing we need to remember our experiences as readers. As writers we choose where to put our chapters with that in mind. One writer chooses lots of short chapters - they're probably only a scene long. My chapters are longer, perhaps containing several scenes, but I work hard at trying to create great chapter ends, ones that lure the reader into reading on.

I don't think it matters how you work your chapters. Just so long as you get the reader to eat the whole packet.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

3 Ways to Make a Depressed Character Interesting

A common story arc is to start a novel with a main character who is down in the dumps and to show their recovery from whatever it was that was depressing them in the first place. For example, a woman who's recovering from a bruising divorce will end up triumphant with a new life that was much better than the old one.

Triumph over disaster, hope springs eternal, never say die, the worm turns - they're all good themes to use for a novel. However, there is an inherent problem. A depressed main character can be, well, depressing to read. Once they're on the road to recovery their lives will be more fun to read about, but those beginning pages when it's established just how miserable/sad/downbeat their lives are can be miserable/sad/downbeat for the reader too. And that means the reader may never get to p 25 when it all picks up.

There are three solutions, and ideally you'd apply all at the same time.

One is to make the character self-aware. If your character lacks self confidence, then make them aware of that. Let them acknowledge how pathetic they're being, let us see them struggle to try to get out of the mire. If their well meaning friend suggests something, then don't have the character immediately stamp on the idea (it'll never work, I can't do that because...). Have them think about it in a positive way before being knocked back.

The second solution is for them to have some area of positivity in their lives. Yes, everything else in their life may have crumbled but their painting, garden, wood-working, whatever is still a source of pleasure and consolation. Make them skilled, knowledgeable or gifted in some way and show that there is some positivity in their life.

Thirdly, let them display positive qualities outside their depression. Just because the character's situation is sad, it doesn't exempt them from humanity. Actually the opposite applies - we may pay lip service about being nice to the sad and depressed, but not many of us actively go our of our way to spend time with them unless they are our nearest and dearest (and let's face it, we might well be staying with them out of duty rather than pleasure). So while the character may be sad, let them also be resourceful or ingenious. Let them be generous to others. Let them be loyal, brave and kind. Best of all, let them be funny...

Positive people planning with purpose is my motto, so while your character may be depressed work hard to make them depressed in positive way. Put bluntly, no one wants to read about someone who is moaning. So don't let them.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

The Writers Cheatsheet

Peter Halanz developed his Writers Cheatsheet when he was doing NaNoWriMo last year. He put everything he felt he needed to know onto one double sided sheet of A4. It's the distillation of things like The Hero's Journey, or Desmond Morris' 12 steps to intimacy, and is definitely worth downloading, especially as it's free.

My problem is that it's all very well reading lists such as Reaction Order (Cause, Emotional response, Action, Speech) but unless you understand them they remain just that: lists. You can follow the Seven Point System, and you might produce a novel, but it's still a system and novels are about so much more than systems.

Systems and lists are reductive. They make writing into a tick box process. But knowing that, for example, The healing/redemptive power of love, is one of the classic romantic plots won't make it any easier to write. Or, if it gets written, more satisfying to read.

Writing should be a creative process, not something that can be parcelled out in chunks like a time and motion study. I have a horrible feeling that sticking to a plan is a means of controlling the beast that is the novel, instead of letting it roam freely.

Part of the sheer joy of writing, in my opinion, is when one's subconscious pulls the proverbial rabbit from the hat and goes off-piste, or when suddenly a link occurs between two characters or situations, and the whole plot suddenly makes sense, like adding the right bit of the jigsaw puzzle.

Having said all that, I do think that using a ready-made structure such as 3 Act Structure can act as a useful security blanket when starting to write. Knowing the Male and Female Archetypes or the Six Virtues can give you a good place to start with character development. But as all children know, security blankets have to be ditched after a while.

So, use the Cheatsheet, and other systems to get you started. Just don't hang on to them for too long in case they stifle your creativity.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Competing in the Writing Olympics

Several of the Olympic teams are training at the university sports centre here in Bath. I've been going for my lunchtime swim and marvelling at the speed of the swimmers in lanes 5-8 compared to those in 1-4 (especially 1 - the slow lane, where I pootle up and down for 30 minutes). They swim fast!

Yesterday I asked the life guard exactly which team it was in training. 'It's the swimming club' she said.
'Not the Olympic team? Not the British team? Not the county team, not even the university team?' I said, clinging to my hopes that I was sharing the same chlorine as an elite athlete.
She smiled at my ignorance. 'The elite athletes come in at 5am for training, then again in the evening. They do about 4-5 hours a day in the pool, and then land-based training on top.'

Which explains in part why I'll never be much of a swimmer. 30 minutes is one thing, 4-5 hours is quite another, especially at 5 in the morning.

On the other hand, it perhaps explains why I'm a writer. Make that 4-5 hours a day of writing, and reading on top, and I'm definitely at the Olympic writing level of training. I suspect that if you want to compete on a serious level at anything - local politics, cake decoration, dog breeding - you have to consistently put the hours in.

But if it's your passion, then you don't mind the hours spent on it. You find the time. You squeeze every minute you can to write in. When not able to write, you think about writing. When relaxing, you read a book and part of you works out what the author has done and why. If you want to write at a consistent publishable level then you have to put those hours in. Simple as that.

And the great thing about writing is that it's available at all levels. Paddling up and down the pool a couple of times a week won't win me any races, but writing a little every now and then might well produce a story that will win a competition or get published in a magazine. And it will be fun and interesting along the way. Going to a weekly writing class or critique group or even taking an MA won't guarantee a publishing contract, but it's a first step along the way.

Write a little, write a lot - the Writing Olympics are open to every one. The only thing it won't do is help you lose weight and get fit but then, you can't have everything.

Monday, 14 November 2011

5 Reasons Why A Full MS Might Be Rejected

It's a question I've been asked a lot and it's a difficult one to answer. However I've been asking around agents and editors, and this is a summary of the answers given.

1. Structure...
Problems with the story line, or pace (usually too slow rather than too fast).

2. Good premise but...
It wasn't developed, or used familiar plots and situations.

3. The writing...
Unfocussed, language flat, nothing special about it.

4. Characters...
Caricatures rather than real people, didn't believe in them, inconsistent.

5. A good book but...
Didn't feel passionate about it, couldn't think where/how to sell it.

Agents and editors have to be passionate about the books they represent or they can't do their job - the agent to sell it to the editor, the editor to sell it to the sales and marketing team. An editor recently told me that she was being asked about each and every book she brought to the acquisition meetings: do you love it enough to stick your neck on the line for it? Lukewarm enthusiasm is not enough.

The problem is that one person's opinion may not coincide with another person's, leading to conflicting feedback. However, if you fix the first 4 points, you are probably also fixing the 5th.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Using Speech Tags To Change The Stress In Dialogue

He said, she said. Such simple words, yet they can be placed to make subtle differences to the meaning of your dialogue. "I believe Nancy is a good writer." That seems a straightforward sentence. Now read through the next three sentences...

"I," Sarah said, "believe Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe," Sarah said, "Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe Nancy," Sarah said, "is a good writer."

Each sentence now has a different subtext according to where the break is.

"I - and this is my personal belief even if it's not yours - believe Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe - but on the other hand I could be wrong about this - Nancy is a good writer."
"I believe Nancy - but not Jemima, Jim and John - is a good writer."

The belief is altered by the stress on the sentence, and the stress is indicated by the last word before the break.

That is a word that I use too much (That is a word I use too much is more succinct) but it does have its place from time to time...

"I believe that," Sarah said, "Nancy is a good writer."

In this case the 'that' is acting like a drum roll, making us wait to find out, gripping the table with the suspense of it all, who exactly does Sarah believe is a good writer. And the stress ends up with Nancy. Having said that, the original sentence - I believe Nancy is a good writer - doesn't need the addition of a that - I believe that Nancy is a good writer.

People tend not to speak in a monotone, so changing the stress is one way we can indicate the rhythm of their speech patterns. It's a good idea to say your characters' dialogue out loud so you can work out which words need to be stressed, and whether you need a break to indicate this. Mind you, anyone in earshot will think you're bonkers, but I reckon that's a small price to pay.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Are There Really Rules For Writing?

Yesterday it was announced that Cat's Ahoy by Peter Bently, illustrated by Jim Field, had won this year's Roald Dahl prize for a funny book written for under 6's. Good for them - it sounds wonderful fun.

But the reason I'm writing about it is that it's written in rhyme, and picture book writers are warned to never write in rhyme. So what's going on - how does a book that breaks the rules not only gets published but also wins prizes?

The reason new picture books writers are told not to write in rhyme is a practical one. Picture books are expensive to produce and publishers aim to recoup the costs by selling them abroad. A text in prose is easier to translate than one in rhyme so foreign publishers tend to avoid rhyming texts. Therefore, a rhyming text will be less likely to recoup costs than a prose text - in other words, it becomes a riskier proposition for the publisher.

I think every Rule about writing is more of a guideline, but because the Rules are based on practical considerations you are usually better off complying with them than not. Take book length. We can all point to texts that are longer or shorter than the Rules say they should be - JK Rowling being a case in point. But while there are exceptions to every rule, the new writer should be aware of the reasons behind the rules (such as paper costs, reader expectations etc) and know they will be part of of the decision to publish (or not).

To take one of my personal rules, I actively discourage students from writing flashback. This is simply because it is rarely well done and is often either confusing or boring - or both. I have no problems with flashback well done, but I don't see it often so it's simpler to say there's a rule and if students choose to break it, make sure they're doing it for good reasons and doing it well.

Will breaking the rules make you unpublishable? No, so long as your work is still readable. But given that most of the rules are common sense aimed at improving readability - too many characters called very similar names is obviously likely to confuse the reader, or double spaced work is easier to read - it seems advisable follow them when you can.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Not Squished Yet

A funny thing happened to me on Saturday morning. From about 8.30am the phone in Cornwall rang, and kept ringing with calls for me. The same morning I also picked up quite a lot of emails via my website address. And there were unexpected DMs on Twitter. When I got back to Bath and retrieved my mobile (which I'd accidentally left behind) I'd had a string of missed calls and texts.

All were wanting to know the same thing: are you OK?

Thank you everyone who knew I usually travel between Bath and Cornwall at the weekends and got in touch about the motorway crash last Friday evening. Yes, I was on the M5 that evening, it was very dark and foggy, and fireworks were going off, but I didn't see any smoke. I was ahead of the crash by a short time, and on the southbound, not the northbound, carriageway, so oblivious that anything had happened until the first call on Saturday.

But it has made me think about how transient life is, and how vulnerable we are. Carpe diem! Seize the day! If we don't do it now, then when? Goethe wrote: 'What ever you think you can do or believe you can do, begin it. Action has magic, grace, and power in it.'

It made me ask myself why I was pussy footing around with this current novel, which has been in the making for so long. And yes, I've got a lot of demands on my time, but not much of it is top priority and certainly not compared to getting this novel written.

On Saturday afternoon I had a twenty minute chunk of free time before we were supposed to be going out in the afternoon. The Saturday before I would have read the paper, but instead I decided to snatch even that little bit of writing time. The twenty minutes stretched to over an hour, and I got a decent amount of writing done. Yesterday I wrote more than I have done for ages, and I loved it.

I don't know why it takes a 34 car pile up to shake me into thinking about what I really want to do, but there it is: it has. I'm a writer. That's all there is to it.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Tell No One...

If I'm teaching a How to Get Published or How to Write a Novel course I always start by discovering what genre people are writing in, so I know if I need to include any genre-specific info.  Most people say they're writing contemporary women's fiction, or sci fi, or thriller - whatever - and leave it at that, but there's always someone who launches into describing what happens in the story.  Arghh!  No!  Stop!

You should never ever ever tell someone the plot of your novel unless they're an agent or editor and have just asked.  (And even then it shouldn't be a blow by blow description but a pitch - but that's for another post.)  

Why the sweeping embargo?

A friend of mine confessed that after their partner left them, they kept telling people they met their story.  Strangers at the bus stop, friends at parties, family didn't matter who or where.  After a while they started to notice people's eyes glazing over, and a little bit later they realised they were boring themselves, let alone others.  They stopped having the need to tell their story (which was probably a good thing for them - and those around them).  

Story tellers want to communicate to others.  More than that, they need to communicate.  Until they've communicated their story, they can't rest.  But once they've told their story enough times, the desire goes.  As a writer, you are a story teller.  But the form of communication you're using is words on a page, not speech.  

Writing a novel takes a lot of time and dedication.  You're writing 80,000-100,000 words - that's a serious commitment. If you tell your story to people, you dissipate the desire to tell your story on the page.  Eventually you may even become bored with the story you were telling, at which point you will stop writing altogether.  

So keep it to yourself.  If friends and family ask, simply tell them you'd rather not say.  If they persist, you could always say that you're hoping they're going to buy a copy when it comes out, so you don't want them to know the plot before.  Remember - tell no one...

Monday, 7 November 2011

Don't Give Up, Keep On Going

A few years back I went to a reunion of my writing group. We'd all done the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa together, and eight of us had continued meeting and critiquing work. But one by one, four had dropped out. So there we were, four actively writing, four not.

Of the four actively writing, two are now published. I'm one of them and was lucky enough to get a publishing deal a year after graduating. The other one had to wait nearly ten years for her publishing deal, but she's got there in the end. The third in our group has had so many near misses - representation by top agent, discussions with editors - that I'm sure the deal will be there for her. The fourth has extremely limited time to write, but is now nearing completion.

All the four who weren't writing said they missed it. They wished they hadn't stopped. They expressed sadness that their creativity wasn't being expressed. One said that she'd been at her happiest when writing...

We often hear about people like me who get published relatively quickly, and forget that for most people it takes much longer than that. They say that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, so why do we think writing a novel will be any different?

I wouldn't recommend plugging away if you really hated writing - that would be daft. But I think if you're still enjoying the process then don't be too impatient. Enjoy your writing, allow yourself time to develop your skills and above all, be happy.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Platforms Are For Trains, Not Writers

There's been lots of discussion about platforms recently on the forums that I follow. 'You MUST have a platform', many blogs announce. 'You MUST use Twitter, Facebook, MUST MUST have a website.'

I've read people saying that publishers check out how many followers an unpublished author has before they'll consider representation and therefore unpublished authors MUST have a media presence or they won't get published.

Hmm. Well, all I can say is Piffle.

There's no MUST about it. Yes, if you like doing these things, by all means go ahead and do them. I know of at least one person who credits getting her agent to her media platform (and that led to a publishing deal). I suspect the quality of her writing was more important.

Put simply, writing a good book is how you get published. No one is going to spend money on a rubbish book however many followers someone has. Having said that, if you have thousands of followers you must be able to write well and have interesting stuff to say, so it may look as though:
thousands of followers = the publishing deal,
but I think the equation actually looks like:
good writer and interesting ideas=thousands of followers=publishing deal.
And I think you can also write it:
good writer and interesting ideas=publishing deal.

Social media is a powerful tool to reach people, but many authors are unconvinced that it actually sells books, especially if you're conventionally published. I was told by my publisher about two years ago that I MUST go on Twitter, Facebook and start blogging. This blog, and my Twitter account (@sarahduncan1) were the result. Personally, I like Twitter, so I do that, and I like blogging (most of the time!) so do that too. Facebook I can't get the hang of (not helped by them changing the format often), and LinkedIn is just a step too far...

I think it's made a difference in the sense that I've been asked to give more talks and write more articles over the past two years than I had before, and it's probably sold a few more books. But what I know has sold most books has been getting shortlisted for prizes, getting good reviews, and getting selected for retailer special offers. All those come from the quality of the book (tho it has to be said that the cover plays a huge part in being selected for the special offers).

If you don't want to get involved in social media, don't. Every day people who haven't got media platforms or any followers sign publishing deals. Yes, it may make you more attractive to a publisher - especially an e-publisher - because publishers like authors who are good at marketing themselves. But at heart it's about the book. Always.

So, if your choice is writing a great book or building a media platform, then writing a great book wins every time.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Importance of Pushing On

I heard lovely news the other day - a former students has been shortlisted in a major novel writing competition. The novel was started years ago, first in one of my novel writing classes, then in a critiquing workshop I ran. She worked away at it when possible, always refining, always developing. Some people - me! - felt she should send it out and not wait for it to be perfect (because there's no such thing as a perfect novel).

But it has to be up to the author when they feel their work is ready for sending out. Novels are the writer's precious baby, and everyone would think twice before placing their baby on the floor and inviting kicks.

And yet we have to do it if we want to be published. We have to accept that our beloved babies will probably not be appreciated by everyone that claps eyes on them. Writers have to have both a sensitive soul and the hide of a rhinoceros. The truth is that not everyone will like everything, and the best thing for us to do when we come across some negative feedback is to scoop up our baby, dust it down and move swiftly on.

And actually, rejection isn't so bad. Oh yes, it hurts at the time, but it inspires you to do better, to try harder (that is, if you don't give it all up). It teaches you to investigate what isn't working and what is, and how you can make the former bits more like the latter. I now know the novel I first sent out was simply not good enough. Rejection made me pull it to pieces, and then rebuild.

Whichever route you take, either editing more and more or risking sending it out before the novel is ready, you have to prepare for rejection at some point. But you only lose if you stop writing. Keep at it, whichever your path. Push on!

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Even Derren Brown Is At It

Following on from Open and Closed Stories, yesterday evening I got round to watching last week's Derren Brown programme. For those who don't know, according to his website, "Derren Brown is a performer who combines magic, suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship in order to seemingly predict and control human behaviour, as well as performing mind-bending feats of mentalism."

The programme hoped to demonstrate how crowds, when they think they're anonymous, behave much worse than they would if they were individualised. The set up was a fake gameshow. The audience believed they were there as audience, rather than the subject of the experiment. The gameshow featured hidden cameras watching a ordinary member of the public in a bar. All the other characters were either friends in on the set up or actors.

The audience were offered 2 scenarios: one positive (=A), one negative (=B), and asked to vote on which scenario they wanted to happen next. Invariably the majority of the audience chose the negative option, which was then carried out, all watched by hidden cameras. This, according to Derren, showed mob behaviour in action. However, as a writer I disagree. These were the options.

1st Choice - X in bar:
A: have a pretty girl flirt with X
B: have girl accuse X of touching her bottom and call over her angry boyfriend.

2nd Choice - still in bar:
A: Angry boyfriend apologises and buys X a drink
B: Barman accuses X of not paying his bill and demanding money, or he'll be thrown out.

3rd Choice - X leaves bar and goes to a shop.
A: He's the shop's 5,000th customer and gets bag of goodies
B: He's accused of shoplifting; the police are called.

4th Choice - Police arrive, look at CCTV footage (offstage):
A: X is let off, there's nothing on the film
B: The film points to X's guilt - he's arrested.

5th Choice - phone call from work colleague, she tells him:
A: She's won a TV, and is going to give it to him
B: He's going to be made redundant on Monday

6th Choice - dropped off back at home by police
A: He gets £10,000 for taking part
B: He's kidnapped by masked thugs.

All the A choices were Closed choices. The story either ended at that point, or would continue in a predictable manner. All the B choices were Open choices, in that you didn't know where the story would go or that it was adding more drama not closure. All the B choices also involved conflict.

So, instead of demonstrating mob rule and a natural propensity to cruelty, I would argue that the programme showed people want excitement and conflict and on-going situations. Good story telling, in other words.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Open and Closed Stories

Recently I had an interesting exchange on Twitter about Jane Austen, and how she wrote exclusively about the run up to marriage, rather than marriage itself. In 140 characters it's hard to explain yourself as well as you'd like, so I thought I'd have a go at doing it here.

The run up to commitment story has, in my opinion, more possibilities for story development than a post-commitment story. Character A might choose X or Y or Z - or none of them. Or A might choose one of them, only for them to refuse. As a writer, there are more places to take the story telling, more possible twists and turns.

If A is married to B, then essentially the story can only go in one of two directions: by the end, A stays with B, or A leaves. What happens en route will vary, but essentially these are the only 2 choices. If A leaves B at the very beginning of the story, there are still two options: the story ends with A emotionally leaving B, or getting back together.

If A leaves B at the beginning of the story and has a high old time choosing who they're going to go with next out of X, Y or Z then we're back into the run up to commitment story, not the commitment story.

Basically, the options for a run up to commitment story are Open, when the options for the commitment story are Closed.

I've written two commitment stories and three run-up to commitment stories (with a fourth on the way), and the run-up stories are frankly much more interesting for me to write. You can go anywhere! Your characters can do anything - and anyone. Whereas, once your character is married, if they want out there is a known legal process to follow. Even if the character simply walks out, as in Ladder of Years by Anne Tyler, the story is still at heart about whether the marriage holds or fails at the end.

That's not to say that stories with Closed options are essentially less interesting than stories with Open options. But because the reader knows where a Closed option is leading to, I think the writer has to work much harder in keeping the reader's interest going.